When it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London. – Bette Midler
It’s been some time since I’ve been here. Quite awhile, actually.
It isn’t that I’ve forgotten, I’ve just been a little bit busy. But it’s nice to be here.
Even if nobody is looking.
So, where have I been?
Well, I went here:
Afterwards, there was a trip to Las Vegas for a bachelorette fete for a lovely and delightful friend, a dislocated ankle (not mine), meeting Ferran Adria (FERRAN ADRIA!!!), going to see Gabrielle Hamilton speak with Kim Severson, helping a lovely friend harvest her backyard vineyard, Anthony Bourdain at the Paramount, and a million other small things that take up the day to day that kept me from the here and now.
All of which leads me to why I am (finally) here today. Turns out that turning everything off for a bit can distill things down and clarify your thoughts and perspectives into something understandable and (dare I say it) meaningful.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a LOT about why professionally crafted food is so different from what most people make in their own homes (not that it’s better or worse, just…different), and it turns out, I have some opinions (shocking, I know).
I won’t claim that that the below is an “end all, be all” list of why restaurant food is better than yours (because who’s to say that it is?), but I do think that its a good start, for me, and for you.
Reason #1: Salt
It’s built and sustained cultures. It has been the basis of international trade and destroyed empires. It is one of the basic tastes the human tongue can perceive, and yet we vilify it, use it sparingly, treat it like a sin. I’m here to tell you that salt is one of the most powerful tools in your cooking arsenal, you just have to learn how to wield it (wisely). Restaurants treat salt differently than you. On the line, salt is an ingredient, not a flavor. It’s part of the elemental structure of a dish, and it’s treated as such. Some starting places for you are:
- Salt is salt is salt. There no way way to change the NaCl nature of the beast (that expensive pink salt from the Himalayas? Guess what: It tastes exactly like that $5 canister of sea salt you have on your countertop – salty), but the way in which salt is handled after harvest makes a huge difference in the way the tongue perceives it. That flaky sel de mer? It’s fantastic on salads. Finer grain salt is better suited to braises and sauces because it melts more readily into the liquid. For baking, get your hands on some kosher salt (preferably Black Diamond). The point is to think about how you are going to use the salt, and to use the right tool for the job.
- Ever notice that in the better restaurants, there isn’t a salt shaker on the table? That’s because salt is not only used liberally, but it is also used in layers in a dish, and in (almost) every component on the plate. Think of salt as an integral part of your cooking, and add it as you go along, rather than going crazy at the end.
- Remember what the goal of salt is: to enhance flavors, not, in the end, to make your dish taste salty. By considering the texture of your salt, and when you add it to your dish, you are already half-way there.
- Lastly, understand that you will use more in the process of cooking, but you will use less in the end, because you will have enhanced the flavor of your food to a point where shaking more on is actually going to detract from your dish.
Reason #2: Time
This is really a two parter, the first being the amount of time we spend in the kitchen vs. “doing other things” and then the amount of time our food actually spends in the pan.
Part 1: Turns out, not every citizen of the US of A is dying to spend their evening hours toiling over a braised pork shoulder or laminating dough (it’s fun! I swear!) However, as a nation, we spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to reduce our time in the kitchen, looking for a “5 Ingredient Fix” or a meal for a family of 4 that takes less than 15 minutes to prepare. And I get it, I really do. It’s hard to raise children/have a job/care for your house/keep it all together.
What I hear in all this is a desire to have more time to spend as a family. What if, just what if, we treated time in the kitchen not as a chore, but as that family time we are all so desperate to have? What if we saw it for what it is – a way to pass on traditions or make them up as we go along? What if, when our kids leave home, they are prepared to feed themselves on something other than fast food and prepared meals? What if we taught them how to prepare vegetables in a way in which they will actually enjoy them, rather than finding ways to hide them in things? What if they had that one killer thing they can make that will land that guy/girl they’ve got their eye on?
What if we treated the thing we have to do three times every day with a little respect?
Part 2: As a rule, all this hurrying in the kitchen is adding to another way in which we short-change our food. Long story short: it just simply doesn’t spend enough time in the pan. That super delicious chicken you had at Chez Whathisname? I guarantee you it was better because Chef didn’t pull it out of the pan the minute the exterior looked even remotely done. She left it there to get a little brown, let the natural sugars (yes, there are sugars in meat) caramelize and create a deeper flavor. That croissant in Paris? Delicious not only because it was made with a veritable fuck-ton of butter, but also because the patissier didn’t remove them from the oven when they were golden, he waited until they were that deep mahogany, allowing the butter to truly vaporize and create an astounding, flaky, crunchy delight. And that bread at your local artisan baker? Only better because they aren’t afraid of a little dark spot on the loaf.
So, wait a little longer. Go a little further. Let the food do its thing. Don’t burn it, but don’t puss out either. If you aren’t a little nervous, you haven’t gone far enough.
Reason #3: Heat
I need you to start thinking of heat as a tool, as a way to achieve results. Restaurants don’t bake everything at 350. They don’t always use the “medium” setting on the burner. Think about what you are doing, and then think about the heat that will be required to achieve your desired result.
Searing requires a high (yes, use the max setting you have available) heat. It’s OK to get a little agressive. If you need a sear, you need to show your food who’s boss. Are you looking to braise something? I want you to think Marvin Gaye. Low and slow is the way to handle this particular situation. Making soup? This is where the middle ground pays off, letting it bubble along, rather than rapidly boiling it’s way into extinction.
Heat is a tool. Learn how your stove works. Warm (or chill) your plates and bowls. Calibrate your oven, think about what you want your end product to look/taste like, and operate your dial as required.
Reason #4: Garnish
Why aren’t you doing this? It’s easy, and if you are already making dinner, you have all the tools at your disposal.
Did you cook chicken in that pan? A little wine and butter makes a great pan sauce. Did you make a salad dressing? Reserve some herbs and garnish your pork roast so that everything is tied together. Got nuthin? What about a little cheese, or olive oil, or mayonnaise, or yogurt, or balsamic, or mustard, or something, anything to pull it all together.
One caveat: Anything you use to garnish your plate should be edible and make sense. There is nothing worse that than lame-ass piece of curly parsley on the corner of the plate, and don’t even get me started on that ubiquitous sprig of mint that comes on every damn dessert on the planet. If you are really thinking about your garnish, it will not only be edible, but will serve to pull a dish together, make it taste even better, and perhaps even telegraph to the diner what they are about to experience. For instance, you wouldn’t garnish a lemon tart with chocolate shavings, instead, you might want a little whipped mascarpone with lemon zest on top. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to put a red wine sauce on a chicken you marinated in lime and garlic, rather, lean toward a sour cream and chipotle sauce.
And there you have it. Four ways in which to start thinking, really thinking, about the food you eat, and how to make it better.
After all, you only get to do it three times a day.